Where does génoise come from?

And for that matter sponge cake in general? Nice question reader Holly! The answer is: um…

Génoise is clearly named for the city of Genoa in northern Italy. However the word is French which means it’s a French-ified version of a type of sweet bread or cake that was once made in Genoa. Does that mean that sponge cake was invented in Italy? Probably not as it seems most sponge-type biscuits and cakes that were made in Italy can be traced to an earlier confection that the Italians called pan di Spagna. “Spanish bread”. Everybody loves something that comes from somewhere else, knowadimean?

It seems that this — at least semi-spongy — Spanish bread arrived in the trading city of Genoa sometime in the middle 1500’s. At that point it was probably more like a light cookie, or biscuit, as our friends the British like to say. How or why the preparation moved northward is something of a mystery, though it seems clear that the French dramatically lightened and enriched it, eventually turning it into a base for cakes.

Back then a substance as fine and delicious as a génoise would only have been found in the kitchens of the nobility. Who else would have had access to fine white flour, good butter and — rarest of all in those days — refined sugar? Which is why it took until the Industrial Revolution before sponge cakes entered the common lexicon. The first printed instance of the words “sponge cake” in English occurs in 1808, in a letter written by Jane Austen.

As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam (no pun intended) it begat commerce. That commerce begat wealth and that wealth begat an ever-greater demand for life’s finer things. Sponge cake was apparently one of those, as it proliferated wildly all through the 19th century. And that’s really all I know about that, reader Holly. Thanks for the question!

4 thoughts on “Where does génoise come from?”

  1. Hmm. This demands research – 16th c. egg-foam biscuits sounds like something I need to make for a feast, or at least a cooks’ guild meeting. Clearly I need to track down some relevant sources (all the ones I have on hand are from the wrong centuries and geographical areas) – might be interesting, given that I don’t read even modern Italian, let alone Renaissance Genoese.

      1. Well, preliminary results are that a lot of the 16th c. Italian sources haven’t been translated into English, and so far I’ve found some fascinating things that aren’t what I’m looking for – Bartolomeo Scappi has recipes for what may or may not be a laminated yeast pastry (depending on how you interpret his instructions about the butter, it’s either brioche-like or croissant-like), and a choux pastry that gets deep-fried, for example.

        Out of curiosity, where did you find that tidbit of information? If I’m lucky I can track that down, and it will lead me on to something useful.

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